On Palestrina’s Music

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
Ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. Psalmus 41:2

As the deer desires springs of water,
So my soul desires you, O God. Psalm 42:1

__Like the deer who longs for water
____And finds a living source,
Listeners lift more fertile spirits after
This flowing motet runs its measured course.
__The Roman style damps dissonance
__As diverse melodies agree;
Four separate streamlets sparkle from the fount.
No resonance asserts predominance
Within their rhythms complementary:
Each voice accords in order paramount.

__Like a hart whose single leap
____Can reach the hind above,
Enthralling passages breathe rest, sink deep,
And then resolve into unfathomed love.
__The song wells up expressively
__From Palestrina making friends
With every singer who performs a part
In his mosaic of transcendent art;
Clear meaning with pure feeling smoothly blends
Each heart desiring order heavenly.

__Like the stag whose circuit ranges
____Throughout expanses vast,
The music of polyphony exchanges
Togetherness for union unsurpassed.
__Dynamic interplay affords
__Consistency and subtlety
To comprehensible complexity,
As staggered entries coalesce in chords.
With sacred words and silence exquisite,
Each soul re-echoes order infinite.



Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 

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27 Responses

  1. Cynthia Erlandson

    Just lovely, Margaret! “Four separate streamlets sparkle from the fount.” and “In his mosaic of transcendent art.” are my favorite lines. I love polyphony, particularly Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis….
    And thank you, Evan, for posting the music. It is so amazing how those four voices can rise to the gorgeous arches and fill that huge and beautiful church. The visuals of the ceiling remind me of John Betjeman’s exquisite poem “Sunday Morning, Kings Cambridge”, especially the lines “And with what rich precision the stonework soars and springs / To fountain out a spreading vault — a shower that never falls.”

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Cynthia, for your response and for linking to the Betjeman poem, which is an absolutely splendid tribute to a masterpiece of sacred architecture. I wrote the poem on Palestrina to attempt something of the same for sacred music, in general and in my favored genre of polyphony. The idea came in part from your long poem on Bach, who had studied Palestrina’s music by making careful copies of it. Although their styles differ, I think the overarching concern for order is a characteristic the two of them share in a profound way.

      • Cynthia Erlandson

        Thank you, Margaret, for your poem, and for your reference to my Bach poem. I am always glad to find others who love
        polyphony. Palestrina’s and Bach’s “overarching concern for order” is a thing of profound beauty. (I’ve often wondered whether it is quite correct to call poetry about music “ekphrastic” poetry? I think of it in that way.) I long ago wrote a poem about William Byrd’s music; perhaps I’ll send it to Evan.

      • Margaret Coats

        Of recent poems in our “Music” category, we have more songs and settings-to-music than pictures of composers and their special distinctions. Thus it would be interesting to see your approach to Byrd, if you find you’d like to share the poem. Especially if your work uses something of the “ekphrastic” manner!

  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Thank you, Margaret. Through an intricate scheme of rhyme and line length you build a worthy homage to this master. Scout corvus is an appropriate reference, but so would be Super flumina and many more of an inexhaustible stream of motets and Masses.
    Too bad the Church as a whole has abandoned Palestrina and the whole of Renaissance sacred polyphony (in addition to the names Cynthia mentions, Victoria, Lasso, Josquin, Isaak, and so many others), often in favor of junk.


        Thanks, Margaret, for bringing out the beauty of Sacred Polyphony through your poetry.

      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks, Joni. Hope we will sing “Sicut Cervus” again very soon!

    • Margaret Coats

      Julian, thanks for your comments. I agree that it is hard to find a representative work by Palestrina because he wrote such a flood of the highest quality. I have been blessed to sing alto in about a dozen of them. Good church music can happen in small parishes. You are right that there is an unprecedented amount of junk overall, but for a hopeful sign of polyphony reborn, take a listen to modern composer Kevin Allen.

  3. Brian Yapko

    It’s always a joy, Margaret, to see how you use form in the service of your poetic conceit. Here you have placed the spotlight on Palestrina’s gorgeously polyphonic Renaissance music. When I first encountered your poem I wondered if it would be in four parts or three. Attentive as you are to the significance of numbers and non-randomly assigning line lengths, etc. four would have made sense to suggest four-part harmony. But when all is said and done, this is a poem about music that is intended for the worship of God and so your decision of three verses must necessarily prevail. But I bet you considered four!

    You’ve also made a fascinating decision concerning rhyme scheme. Each stanza has ten lines. The first four of each stanza are rigid a-b-a-b. The next six lines, although they rigorously use c, d and e rhymes, do so in a variety of orders but ending, at last, in the third stanza with a lovely e-e- couplet which provides perfect closure — almost as the “amen” to the piece.

    And, of course, the language of your piece is gorgeous — especially your three references to the deer/hart/stag as is your somewhat unexpected use of meter which, at times, mirrors the concept of music and fitting different values of notes into a measure. Similarly, your use of varying line lengths (2×3 stresses, 2×5 stresses, 2×4, stresses, 4×5 stresses) reflects the nonregimented freely sung qualities of the music itself.

    Another splendid poem, Margaret, in which — as is your wont — each detail is meticulously weighed before it is presented. Very well done indeed!

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Brian. As jd remarks below, your comments on form help others to appreciate it. Basic numerology gives three to heaven and four to earth, but I chose three stanzas mainly to work in English ode format. Keats is supposed to have suggested three 10-line stanzas rhymed ababcdecde, though he did not write any such poem. Varying line lengths is characteriestic of many odes, English or not. And I varied the cde portions of the rhyme scheme in each stanza because Palestrina ALWAYS changes the music when the words change. No multiverse hymns from him! And thus the rhymed couplet serves as a good conclusion because we only hear one at the end of the third stanza.

      There is one hymn where Palestrina is named as composer of the melody: “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done” for Easter. But this bit of melody is merely part of his Gloria Patri conclusion to a long Magnificat. Palestrina’s greatest glory as a composer is to make words clearly comprehensible within the many melodies of a polyphonic piece.

  4. Roy E. Peterson

    As one not particularly attuned to Renaissance music, your presentation made me decide to listen. My mother who was a Latin teacher and high soprano would have been thrilled. I felt the tenor voice was fantastic. I can relate to polyphonic music, since I was a bass in a Gospel Quartet that traveled the East Coast. Your exquisite words and phrases fascinated me, I had to read them more than once. Besides that, like Brian, I noted the deer/hart/hind/stag grouping that seemed to be the best selection for each phrase and verse. I always enjoy your work.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for the compliments, Roy. You noticed how I got four voice parts into the three-stanza poem, with hart and hind (representing the middle voices of a quartet) both in the middle stanza. Looking at possible translations for “cervus,” I wanted more than one. If Palestrina had written a five- or six-part motet, I would have added “buck” and “doe.” New York Polyphony sings the piece with a countertenor (same range as female contralto) taking what is usually the soprano part. He is probably the one you noticed, but they are all stellar soloists, perfect to illustrate Palestrina’s equal melodies.

  5. jd

    Goose bumps, first from the poem
    alone and then from the quartet. Both
    are very beautiful. Thank you. I also love
    reading Brian Yapko’s exposition(s). Thank
    you for that also.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your appreciation. I admire everything by Palestrina, but chose this piece to represent him in my tribute because it has the deepest effect on me as I sing.

  6. James Sale

    A lovely poem Margaret and good to see Palestrina – a much less well-known composer – getting such a great write-up. He’s probably my second favourite composer (after Bach) – and some of his work is truly sublime. Exhilarating to find this thoughtful exposition of his work.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James, especially because I have indeed tried to give a little exposition of qualities that are truly great in Palestrina’s work. You are correct that he is lesser known than many composers, but when I look at a list of the top ten, I have to say his absence can only be because he is unknown. I am very glad to hear you consider him number two to Bach, who made a serious study of Palestrina’s work.

  7. David Watt

    Margaret, on reading this beautiful piece I was particularly struck by “Palestrina making friends with every singer” and “silence exquisite”.
    In the YouTube video, and through your words, we realize the deep connection between Palestrina’s music, the singers, and the audience.
    I think we sometimes forget the value of silence in music as crucial to full
    appreciation of each note.

    • Margaret Coats

      David, thank you for noticing my very personal opinion of Palestrina as every singer’s friend. Each voice part is always an excellent one, as if the composer were writing only for me, the alto, as soloist within a framework where my fellow singers all have singularly important passages as well. And crucial silences, too, that we need to hold to the full!

  8. BenB

    Excellent work as always, Margaret. As one who has sung Palestrina’s works and directed performances, this poem is indeed a fitting tribute. I appreciate the references to his music being life-giving, contrasting greatly with what passes for music these days. As you put so well, this great composer moves both singer and listener from earth to heaven, from the creature to the Creator, from the finite to the infinite.

    I also second your recommendation of the works of Mr. Kevin Allen who continues in the venerable line of Palestrina today.

    St. Philip Neri was one of Palestrina’s greatest supporters and for years was his confessor and confidante. The account of Palestrina’s death as St. Philip ministered to him shows some of the depth of the famous composer’s piety, and can be read here: https://archive.org/details/a549672602capeuoft/page/n104/mode/1up?q=palestrina&view=theater

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Ben, for your appreciation and for linking this account of Palestrina’s last days. I did not realize that Saint Philip Neri was such a great friend and supporter. It is edifying to see what attention the saint gave his dying friend, as well as to see the piety of the composer, strong in soul to the end, as befits one whose music remains life-giving.

      Since you agree about Kevin Allen, let me add here specific suggestions for anyone wanting to look him up on YouTube. I think the best selection for comparing him with Palestrina is “Ave Sacer Christi Sanguis” performed by the Chamber Choir. The individual voices are very good and an English translation appears onscreen. For an English poem and hymn turned into gorgeous modern polyphony, see “Lead Kindly Light” (words by Saint John Henry Newman) performed by the Brebeuf Virtual Choir. I have sung with all the Brebeuf singers, but these young persons far outdo me in technology needed to succeed so stupendously at singing together when they are separated by thousands of miles.



  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, Palestrina’s music is beautiful and ‘On Palestrina’s Music’ is exquisite… both the music and the poem offer a shining glimpse of the divine. I especially like the term ‘mosaic of transcendent art’, which, for me, applies to the music and the poem. Experiencing both has been a delight and a privilege. Thank you.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Cynthia on the Betjeman front. “Sunday Morning, Kings Cambridge” is one of my many favorites of this marvelous poet laureate’s works and your admirably crafted poem is filled with those golden notes that have the words soaring to great heights. Lovely!

    • Margaret Coats

      Susan, thanks so much. I’ve sung tesserae (tile pieces) for some of the maestro’s finest mosaics, and I feel very privileged to step forth from his studio, and be regarded by you as a mosaicist myself for what I’ve done in this poem.

  10. C.B. Anderson

    Yow, Margaret, the poem and the music were of a piece. I know persons who adore Gregorian chants, which is fine, but compared to Palestrina they are, in the narrowest sense of the term, monotonous. Palestrina performed has the ability to send even an old curmudgeon like me into a state of rapture. Thanks for juxtaposing two fine pieces.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for the great compliment of finding my poem “of a piece” with Palestrina’s music. I agree with you about Gregorian chant, a form of music which is, in my opinion, closer to a poem than is polyphony. Chant and poem use only one line of words. I think Palestrina’s polyphony has some relation to the jubilus, the long melisma on the final “ah” of the word “alleluia.” Augustine says it represents human joy that cannot be expressed in words. But Palestrina puts words to it, and gives the words to individual voices who express jubilation according to different personal emotions in each voice part. This is my singer’s venture into music theory; it will certainly be contradicted by those who make a business of theory. But I thank you for inspiring the thought!

  11. R M Moore

    ”Clear meaning with pure feeling smoothly blends
    Each heart desiring order heavenly….
    ….The music of polyphony exchanges
    Togetherness for union unsurpassed.
    __Dynamic interplay affords
    __Consistency and subtlety
    To comprehensible complexity,…”

    These lines express more than what happens when we hear with our ears and listen with our hearts: the poetically described musical actions may imitate the spiritual actions of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is an orderly, ‘heavenly’ ‘union unsurpassed’. This music now becomes spiritual, raising man’s mind and heart to experience Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Thank you for this poem, Margaret.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Mrs. Moore, for expressing so well what Palestrina’s motive and goal must have been. He composed music in which the aesthetic appeal is not a distraction to the devout listener, but as clearly and directly as possible opens the human heart and mind to God.


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